What's in a Song: 'The Last Letter'

For this edition of the "What's in a Song" series, country music historian Bill C. Malone shares a childhood memory of how Rex Griffin's "The Last Letter" became a family favorite.

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JOHN YDSTIE, host:

Most of us have experienced the sensation: We'll be going about our daily business and we catch a whiff of something or hear an old song in the background, and our thoughts are flooded with distant memories of childhood. In this week's What's In a Song?, our occasional series from the Western Folklife Center about one song and its story, one of America's best-known country music historians recalls the first time he heard a ballad called "The Last Letter."

Mr. BILL C. MALONE (Country Music Historian): I'm Bill C. Malone, and I'm a historian of country music. I wrote the book "Country Music, USA," which was the first general survey of the history.

(Soundbite of "The Last Letter")

Mr. REX GRIFFIN: (Singing) Why do you treat me as if I were only a friend? What have I done that has made you so different and cold?

Mr. MALONE: Rex Griffin wrote and recorded it at about 1937. He was one of those many itinerant hillbilly entertainers of that period. I think, as a classic song, it's direct and simple. It kind of marks the transition from the old singer with guitar and the Jimmie Rodgers style to honky-tonk music, because the lyrics are, you know, real cry-in-your-beer lyrics. It's often described as a `suicide song.'

(Soundbite of "The Last Letter")

Mr. GRIFFIN: (Singing) If you don't love me, I wish you would leave me alone.

Mr. MALONE: What makes it so special to me is that it came into our house along with that first Philco battery radio. Daddy bought it in 1939. I'll always associate it with growing up in east Texas and finding emotional release and sustenance through the radio, which was a real companion to me in those years.

(Soundbite of "The Last Letter")

Mr. GRIFFIN: (Singing) But to this world I will soon say my farewell at last. I will be gone when you read this last letter from me.

Mr. MALONE: We lived in a--what's called a box house. It was way out in the country. It was a rented house. Daddy was a cotton farmer and he worked on the shares. He was a share tenant farmer about 20 miles west of Tyler. Four rooms, two bedrooms, a kitchen and another room where the big pot-bellied stove was, and that's where we had the radio.

(Soundbite of "The Last Letter")

Mr. GRIFFIN: (Singing) Sometimes I wonder if you'll be contented again. Will you be...

(Soundbite of radio static)

Mr. MALONE: Well, Saturday night, my brother would tune in the Grand Ole Opry.

(Soundbite of Grand Ole Opry)

Unidentified Man: Come with us again to the Opry house and join in another half-hour of fun, music and song. Do you like the songs of the hills? Do your feet shuffle to the old-time breakdowns? Well...

Mr. MALONE: And my brother would tune in each weekday night at about 9:30 or so and listen to the Carter Family.

(Soundbite of vintage radio program)

CARTER FAMILY: (Singing) When you are weary and part of another man's soul, always remember this letter, my own.

Mr. MALONE: And when my brothers got their first guitar--my older brother's nine years older than I am--he learned his first chords playing "The Last Letter." And then Kelly(ph), the next brother, he did the same thing, and I remember my mother sitting and listening to him, and as they'd play, she'd say, `Oh, you got a change there. Don't stay on that chord. Move to the next one.' So then I made a point years later, when I learned to play the guitar, to learn the same thing. It had become sort of a family tradition.

(Soundbite of "The Last Letter")

Mr. MALONE: (Singing) If you don't love me, I wish you would leave me alone. While I am writing this letter...

I think I probably speak for the rest of the family that we looked on those radio hillbillies as being members of the family. They knew what we were going through and they had values that we could identify with, and we also felt that if we just had a little more spunk and we'd get out there and try, we could do what they were doing.

(Soundbite of "The Last Letter")

Mr. MALONE: (Singing) But to this whole world, I'll soon bid my farewell at last. I will be gone when you read this last letter from me.

YDSTIE: What's In a Song? is produced by Hal Cannon and Taki Telonidis of the Western Folklife Center.

This is NPR's WEEKEND EDITION.

(Credits)

YDSTIE: Liane Hansen returns next week. I'm John Ydstie.

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